An Oscar-bait-y disappointment, elevated by fantastic performances.
It is 1840’s England, and Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a much acclaimed but overlook fossil hunter in the town of Lime - part of England’s rugged Southern coastline and a hot spot for fossils. Alas, time and fashions pass, and while fossils were once a hot topic in the bustling London, they have fallen out of favour. Her greatest discovery still sits in the British Museum, but nowadays she searches for common fossils to sell to tourists to support herself and her ailing mother. Change comes in the form of a wealthy visitor, who pays Mary to take care of his wife Charlotte Murchison (Saorise Ronan) - a woman who has been taken with a ‘mild case of melancholia’. Mary and Charlotte initially clash, one used to getting her hands dirty, the other accustomed to a broad range of servants for that sort of thing, but despite the distance between their social class and personalities, an intense bond begins to develop, compelling the two women to determine the true nature of their relationship.
Ammonite is one of those period pieces that feels like it has been created in a lab with the express intent of winning a lot of awards. Directed by Francis Lee, whose 2017 picture God’s Own Country was an incredible piece of filmmaking, Ammonite has all of the elements to make it a must see classic. It’s a shame, then, that what gets served up is so drenched in cliche. This tried and tired story arc has been done before to death, and you’ll find yourself easily able to predict not only the broad strokes of the plot before it occurs, but often a lot of the minutiae also.
The film is also incredibly slow-burn. At a flat 2 hours, it feels interminably long, without really justifying its reason for being so. Director of Photography Stephane Fontaine is allowed to run rampant with capturing the set design, whether it's flies on a windowsill, a lady bug traversing a painting, or the sails of a ship. These indulgent metaphors are supported by a script that is bare to say the least. To its credit, the script from Francis Lee (coupled with his assured direction) assumes a lot from the audience - it doesn’t beat you over the head with exposition, which is quite a refreshing change of pace. As an audience member, this allows you to search for meaning in glances, looks, camera pulls and shot choices, and in many ways makes this a much braver and much more enjoyable film. At the same time, however, this movie isn’t really saying anything - it doesn’t challenge its audience, either from a commentary perspective or from a filmmaking perspective, and in doing so it loses it. Ammonite has the feel of Phantom Thread, but without the assured commentary and the out of the box plotting. The fact that the movie is so incredibly passe makes the 2 hour runtime feel so much longer.
What works in the films favour is the incredible work from the two lead actresses, coupled with Lee’s ability to direct them and give them space to interpret the work. Ronan and Winslet both give impossibly strong performances in the film, as you would expect from two of the best actresses in the world. Ronan straddles the divide between coquettish youthful exuberance and melancholic depression. She perfectly conveys an admittedly quick attraction and capitalization of that feeling. Winslet, meanwhile, plays an oddball character, and gives a brave and raw performance in doing so. She does a tremendous amount with just a look. Whether she is wrestling a boulder from a muddy hillside, getting worked up at a concert, feeling abandoned by her newfound lover, dealing with death, or trying to hide her attraction to her new ward, she is truly unmatchable. A master at work. Together they elevate this material and create a piece worth watching from what otherwise is a pretty bleak, unmoving film.
Ammonite is a movie about loneliness, or more accurately about being alone with loss. In many respects, the romantic elements and the focus on loss for these two women - of family, of children, of career and of self - is done pretty well. But for a period drama about two women in love in the 1840’s, a woman at the top of a scientific field in the 1840’s, and about independence, this movie says remarkably little. One wishes there was more social commentary, more risk and more danger. As it is, there are no stakes in the film, and this leads to disengagement. For a movie about the all encompassing pain of loss and loneliness, you’d want Ammonite to draw you in and make you feel alone in the cinema with these characters. Alas, it is so unengaging, you will be acutely aware of everybody else in the cinema with you - all aware you are watching great, Oscar worthy art, but all dying for it to be over.
Ammonite needed more to say, but what a beautiful way to have said what it did.